One thing David questioned about my school last week is why my boss is looking for North American teachers as opposed to British, Australian or other native English speakers. I can completely understand how this sort of policy would be annoying to those it excluded, much like the fact that high paying IELTS jobs prefer teachers from the UK or commonwealth countries is frustrating for some Americans. There’s no doubt that the preference of schools skews heavily towards American English. However, I think there are a few rational reasons for this.

  1. There are a lot of Americans- 67% of all native English speakers are Americans. Another 5% are Canadians.
  2. American speakers are wealthier on average than other English speakers. The amount of money English speakers control is a crucial reason, if not the reason so many people around the world study English. There are more native Spanish and native Mandarin speakers around the world, but as they represent smaller markets to sell to and do business with, neither of those languages have achieved anything close to the dominance English has.
  3. The US has the best colleges in the world. According to SJTU, seventeen out of the top twenty are in the US. While it’s ridiculous for Asian parents to expect their children to get into Yale or MIT, many secretly harbor that hope. Even disregarding the very top schools, there are still more east Asians and foreigners in general that choose to study abroad in the US than in any other country.
  4. There is some regional variation in dialects of English in the US, but not nearly as much as in the UK.
  5. Due to mass media, the British, Australians, and other English speakers understand US English much better than Americans understand other English dialects. The first time I saw an episode from a British TV series (The Young Ones) when I was thirteen, I couldn’t understand any of it. Many of my classmates couldn’t either. I would be very surprised to hear of any British or Australian thirteen-year-olds who saw an episode of Friends and couldn’t understand it due to the American English.

At my particular school, there is an even bigger reason why it would be difficult for non N. American teachers. All of the CDs our first year students listen to have Ron’s voice on them. Even the small differences between his accent and mine are enough to cause difficulties at times. When I give his first semester students oral spelling quizzes (of words they’ve never heard), they make about 15% more errors than when he gives them quizzes. My own students struggle a bit with “-orr-” words, such as “tomorrow” since I pronounce them differently than Ron does on the CD. There would be massive problems for students of teachers who speak with a British (or god help us an Irish) accent. Learning how to pronounce R’s is already onerously difficult. Most students get it within a month, but some take several. Learning from a teacher who pronounced them radically differently than the CD did, would be that last back-breaking straw for most of our students. Aside from accent differences, there are also many spelling differences (which would wreak havoc on our phonics system), word usage differences, and grammatical differences (especially with perfect tenses). Since all of our materials use American spelling, word usage and grammar, it would be very confusing for students if our teachers did not.

Most of the problems described above disappear quickly as students advance to higher levels. When I give Ron’s third semester students oral spelling quizzes, they perform just as well as they do when he gives the quizzes. A British accent might still be a bit difficult for them at that point; but the higher their level, the easier it would be for them to learn how to understand one. I completely agree with David that the more different kinds of accents the students can understand, the better. As it is now, my school’s students keep the same teacher from their first class all the way through graduation. If there were a way to hire a small number of teachers from the UK and commonwealth and have each student learn from them during their third year of study, there would be some definite advantages. The students could probably adjust to a new accent pretty easily at that level, and they could continue to get exposure to UK accents through our OUP materials in their final year. The problem with this system, is that I can’t imagine any teacher wanting to be the “token British guy” and just teach one year of everybody’s classes. It is something worth some serious thought, though. Here are some advantages of learning British English:

  1. Even in the US, British English is the “prestige dialect”. Amazingly, this isn’t limited to RP. Even “lower class” British dialects are treated as signs of culture, refinement and coolness
  2. British literature is also prestigious. All over the English speaking world, British literature is studied. The English, on the other hand, study far less American literature.
  3. Many movies and television programs that deal with scenes of a historical or fantasy/RPG nature, employ British or pseudo-British accents.
  4. 60,000,000 people is still a lot of people living in the UK.
  5. The IELTS, which is rapidly becoming the dominant test for non-native English speakers wanting to go to college in English speaking places, uses British English.